Post #546 The Digest Version of a Master

August 28, 2017 at 1:38 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“Mastering the Art of French Cooking” started a revolution in cooking in America in the sixties and its impact is still felt today.  It was written by three ladies, two who were French, and one who was American.  The American became the face of the book, Julia Child.  Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle who started the project and brought Julia in later, continued their solo efforts in France.  The first cookbook created a format that was unique in its day, and followed today by many authors.

MAFC was a herculean effort taking several years to coalesce into a single volume.  Julia insisted on standard measurements, and multiple recipe tests.  Her idea was to make the recipes foolproof and easy to understand and execute.  The project quickly spiraled out of control until through some inspiration, they realized they were repeating my recipes as parts of other recipes.  So they started simply, using recipes that were building blocks for other recipes.  It was a runaway best seller when it was first released, and has been one of the top selling cookbooks ever since.  It’s never far from the top ten in any year.

There are actually two volumes.  The first volume covered recipes and techniques the women considered the essentials.  The second volume was written to include recipes that fans were asking for (predominantly breads and pastries), and favorites of the authors, which at this time was only Simone Beck and Julia Child.  During this time, Julia had returned to America and had started a television career teaching french cooking.  So when Simone wanted to do a third volume, Julia bowed out preferring to concentrate on television.  So Ms. Beck wrote an unofficial volume three on her own called Simka’s Cuisine.  I’ve never read it, so I don’t know what it contains, but I will read it some day.

Each of the two volumes weigh as much as a large bag of flour.  They are truly monster sized books.  They can be purchased individually or as a boxed set.  They come in hardback for over $100, or in paperback for significantly less.  What I like best about this set is the amount of explanation for each section that’s provided.  I’m not just learning a recipe blindly.  I’m learning about the ingredients, and about the techniques and why they work.  I’m learning about the ways to mix and match things and to be creative.

So, buying this set is a large commitment in money and in time.  You have to really want to learn how to cook French food.  BUT, there’s another way to get your hands around the basics and to learn not just French cooking, but how to cook; how to be a chef.  You see, people fell in love with Julia Child and her fearless attitude towards cooking.  So she kept writing, about her life, her interests, and her cooking.

I had a birthday this past weekend.  One of the gifts I got is this one:

I’ve seen this book before, but never really looked at it.  On the surface, I always thought it to be a collection of kitchen hacks, those short cuts learned from a lifetime of cooking.  I know several of those myself.  Things like, if you want to make a slurry of flour and water to make a gravy, to make sure it’s smooth as possible put the water and flour in a jar with a tight fitting lid and shake the hell out of it for a few minutes.  So when I got it yesterday, I was happy to see it so I could start rebuilding my collection of cookbooks.

I opened it this morning, and started paging through slowly, getting a sense of what was inside.  As I read bits and pieces, I slowed down and took a closer look.  I was surprised at what I found, and not the least bit disappointed when it didn’t match what I assumed was in the book.  What I found was a digest-sized version of Mastering The Art of French Cooking.  I did a mental happy dance.

Julia wrote this book in the late 1990s.  It comprises a lifetime of cooking tips and tricks.  She describes it as beginning “as my loose-leaf kitchen reference guide gradually compiled from my own trials, remedies, and errors – corrected as I’ve cooked my way through the years.”  Years ago, I wrote a blog post (#31) about keeping a kitchen journal.  This book is based on Julia’s, and I’m thrilled that I was doing the same thing professional chefs were doing without knowing it.  It follows the same format style as MAFC.  Each section starts with a master recipe, then adds variations.

For instance, crepes.  Crepes are the finger food, street food of France.  I’ve walked around Paris and watched people eating crepes from a paper envelope and the fillings were as varied as the people eating them.  One of my coworkers was addicted to crepes filled with banana and Nutella.  He got two every evening on the way home from work.  Seldom ate dinner.  I’ve seen them filled with eggs and veggies and meats and fruits and cheese and jam.  But the crepe is the same basic thing.  It’s only the filling that changes.  So this book gives the master recipe for crepes, some variations in technique or ingredients, and then lists several different ways to fill them and how they change.

So this book running 130 pages and costing about $16 has sections on soups and sauces, salads and dressings, vegetables, eggs, meat, poultry, fish, breads, cakes and cookies, and basic cooking instructions and definitions.  Now, it’s not a comprehensive compendium of these groups.  But it is a collection of her favorites, and the recipes she’s known for are all here.  For anyone who wants to get sense of Julia’s style of cooking, or of French cooking, but doesn’t want to spend over a $100 for several pounds of books, this is a terrific alternative.

And since I usually share a recipe with each post, I’ll share one of my favorite crepe recipes.  This is directly from this book.

Stacked Crepe Cake

Crepes are a very thin pancake and can be folded or rolled to hold all kinds of things.  This is a different way to use them.  You’ll want to make 18-24 for this recipe to work.

  • 1 cup AP Flour
  • 2/3 cup cold milk
  • 2/3 cup cold water
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 3 tablespoons melted butter plus more for pan
  • 1 cup melted milk chocolate
  • 1 cup heated raspberry jam, good quality

Mix all the ingredients to a smooth consistency in a blender or food processor, or by hand with a whisk.  Chill in fridge for 30 minutes to allow flour to hydrate.  This will make the crepes more tender.  Heat a 5 inch non-stick skillet to the point where water droplets “dance” on the surface.  Brush the pan lightly with melted butter.  Pour 2-3 tablespoons of batter into pan and tilt pan to coat it evenly.  If you’ve over filled, pour extra batter back into bowl.  If you’ve under filled, add a little more batter to coat the pan evenly.  Cook about one minute until crepe is browned on bottom.  Loosen with a spatula and turn.  Cook just a few seconds on this side.  Remove to a rack to cool.  Continue cooking and cooling crepes until batter is gone.  Remove crepes from rack as they cool completely so there is room to continue.  When crepes are completely cool place in a zip lock bag into the fridge to keep up to two days; freeze if needed up to two months.  When ready to assemble, melt the chocolate and heat the jam, and bring the crepes to room temperature.  Place one crepe on a serving plate and brush lightly with jam.  Place another crepe on top and brush lightly with chocolate.  Make certain to brush jam and chocolate all the way to the edge.  Alternate layers of jam and chocolate until all crepes are used.  Make sure the chocolate is pouring consistency and pour over top crepe and allow to drizzle down the sides.  Chill for two hours, then slice into wedges and serve.

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